While most of today's pop stars are eager to define their public personas, '90s two-hit wonder turned electropop princess Robyn likes to keep people guessing. When asked whether her frequent tongue-in-cheek cockiness is for real, for example, she replies, "I don't like to look at myself from the outside." Maybe it's because she doesn't have time. Robyn is on the home stretch of a marathon year in which she released three albums and toured almost nonstop. Her latest attempt at winning over American audiences started a week ago in the South."I think everything's warm!" the Swede chirps of last week's 60-degree weather in Florida, a state she says pleasantly surprised her: "I didn't expect it to be so dynamic, in the people I met. I was expecting it to be more — old people."
We didn't expect her to be so dynamic, either. Robin Miriam Carlsson got her start as a kind of beta-phase Britney, an early product of then-up-and-coming Swedish producer Max Martin and a record label looking to monetize the growing R&B craze. The formula worked, and her debut album, My Truth, helped make teen-pop the inescapable phenomenon it would become. But as glossier acts danced their way into our collective consciousness, she disappeared, struggling with and eventually leaving her record label. It took a while for international audiences to notice 2005's Robyn, the first album on her self-founded label, Konichiwa, which saw a newly liberated Robyn belting out big hooks over addictive futuristic synth-pop beats. Eventually her half-joking swagger won over even the stubbornest of critics, and Pitchfork ranked her self-titled comeback the No. 68 album of the decade.
Ask Robyn to reintroduce herself to listeners and she seems hesitant to self-categorize. "I make pop music" is about as far as she'll go. Perhaps the Swedes have a more playful definition of pop than we do. In recent music videos, she has shaved her head, sported heavy drawn-on eyebrows, and inhabited the kind of '80s-space-Picasso outfits next year's hipsters will probably be brooding in. Somehow it all looks good on her. Her musical persona slips with ease into both heartbreak (on the gut-wrenching "Dancing on My Own") and hip-hop-sized ego (she outbrags Snoop Dogg on boast track "You Should Know Better"). Her song titles ("Fembot," "The Girl and the Robot," "Robotboy") are the first hints of a robot fetish. "I'm a sci-fi fan," she says. "How society develops is interesting. Humans always try to re-create reality. Robots are a more simple version of ourselves, and giving them emotion is ... a nice way of describing the human condition."
Robyn seems unfazed with the state of the music industry, and says that sharing songs online is "a more organic way of consuming music." Her latest project aims to appeal to fans with ever-shortening attention spans. Already released this year are the mini-LP dance-pop gems Body Talk Part I and Part II, with the 15-track album Body Talk taking the place of a third mini-album for the series finale at the end of this month. The endeavor has an improvised feel, and Robyn admits that a full-length finish wasn't part of her original plan. "This whole thing was an experiment, really," she says. "I knew we had a lot of songs, I knew it'd be three releases, but I didn't know in what way." The resulting project could be seen as a bold creative move or dismissed as a clever marketing strategy. It may be both, but, for Robyn, "the normal way of doing it ... just sounds so uninspiring. Recording and touring at the same time was a selfish decision. It's more fun."
Fans are anticipating pop gold after hearing that the final Body Talk finds Robyn reunited with Martin for a track called "Time Machine." He is famous (or infamous) as the mastermind behind the biggest hits from the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry. Robyn insists that the reunion, 12 years after her breakthrough, wasn't delayed in an effort to escape her teen-pop persona. "It was nostalgic for both of us, to go back in and make that kind of a big pop song that we did," she says. "It's my way of showing that I'm not trying to distance myself from where I come from."
So far, Robyn seems to be taking positive reviews nonchalantly. "I'm just happy that people understand it," she says. "It's fantastic, the reviews I'm getting." She continues after a sly pause: "But I see why." So Robyn finally answers my question about her cockiness — and somehow it looks good on her.